Sybren Valkema (1916-1996), artist, teacher, deputy-director of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, founder of the studio glass movement in the Netherlands, and a seminal figure in the establishment of a European network of educators and artists
involved in independent studio glass.
The Sybren Valkema archives excel at providing a contextual look at studio glass by stipulating historical background on industrial glass in Leerdam in the early 20th century and explaining the rise of a global studio glass movement in the 1960s. Sybren Valkema’s early commitment to the education of the workers in Leerdam during wartime, providing them with a more holistic program that included fine arts and physical education as well as the more traditional vocational curriculum, indicated an innovative and experimental approach that would become a lifelong pattern. As a member of the generation who lived through the war years and its deprivations, Sybren Valkema exhibited the spirit of invention and self-reliance in many areas of his professional life that would become so indicative of the later studio glass movement.
The Sybren Valkema archives correspondingly gives insight into the enlightened administration of the Leerdam factory during and after the war, as the director P.M. Cochius — in a parallel effort with his peers at Orrefors and Venini and other European factories — steered industrial glass production away from the traditions of the past and towards a design-oriented golden age of mid-century icons. At the Leerdam factory, Valkema’s design work followed in the footsteps of Chris Lebeau and was contemporaneous with that of Andries Copier. These are the years that gave rise to the Serica (limited edition) and Unica (unique art pieces) series, in what might be considered a precursor to the idea of glasswork that is not conceived of in unlimited multiples.
A historically noteworthy part of the archives details what could be termed the Big Bang of the European studio glass movement: the World Crafts Council conference of June 1964, held in New York. This was the event where Harvey Littleton first demonstrated the small furnace designed by Dominick Labino to an international audience that included Erwin Eisch from Germany and Sybren Valkema, many of whom would return to their home countries to found regional and national movements, and maintain the peer communication that would later grow into the international network of artists working in glass that exists today.
What became apparent whilst sorting this archive — which also includes early correspondence with Harvey Littleton, Dominick Labino, Marvin Lipofsky and other pioneers — was that the truly revolutionary achievement of the studio glass movement lay not in objects or technology or even an aesthetic manifesto but was by its nature rather conceptual.
Early glasswork from the 1960s is too often dismissed as being technically clumsy and poorly crafted, a judgment that entirely misses the point of work that was made in a spirit of rebellion against the virtuoso skill of traditional glasswork.
The essence of the studio glass movement, the inspiration that all of those artists and educators took away from that first encounter, was an idea; that artists could have direct access to a unique material without the mediation of a factory or a system that divorced craftsman from designer. That single idea was the real spark that led to university-level glass departments, which in turn disseminated information to and inspired independent studios across America and Europe and that would later spread around the world. Without extensive knowledge sharing studio glass would not have been able to thrive, nor exist outside a factory setting.
The invention of the small furnace is often celebrated as the turning point that made an independent studio glass movement possible. Indeed, this archive recognizes the critical role of that technology by having exact drawings of the first Labino furnace, the burner and flame control system on hand. Small furnaces had existed for some time before that and were used for test melts in the factory laboratories, as both Erwin Eisch and Sybren Valkema would have been aware of.
The Sybren Valkema archives underline the importance of understanding our history, which can serve as a touchstone even today for maintaining contact with that fundamental idea. These days when glasswork is made with such technical assurance, when objects have such impressive presence, when all of the formal elements of color, scale and form are so much more easily commanded, it is important to keep searching for that earlier spirit of discovery and that ineffable sense of liberation that was present at the beginning of the independent studio glass movement and the pivotal role of art education.
All the documents in the Sybren Valkema archives are currently being restored, sorted and prepared so that this exceptional archival material can be digitalized in its entirety.
Through additional funding, necessary searchable in-depth descriptions can be added to the digitalized files, including the relevant metadata so that students, artists, and researchers, and a wider audience, will have access to the material that is being kept in the Sybren Valkema archives. The finial result will serve as an open source knowledge database for glass education and research.
Durk Valkema, Vrij Glas
Amsterdam, 13 August 2014
Sybren would use his own source material to write and illustrate texts on the history of glass for his students.
Durk Valkema blows glass for his father, assisted by Anna Carlgren, at La Symposium Internationale du Verre à Sars-Poteries, 1982.
A step-by-step drawing from the Sybren Valkema Archive on how to make the candleholder featured in the Academy Award winning
Bert Haanstra movie 'Glass' (1958). The drawing is signed E. Zanten, a pupil at the glass school in Leerdam, and dated 1955.